School software sparks privacy worries

By Cao Siqi, Zhao Yusha and Xu Keyue Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/4 21:58:41

Driven by market forces, many AI products have ‘gone bad’: insider

Pictured are students from No.11 School of Renhuai in Guizhou Province wearing intelligent uniforms at the playground. Photo: Courtesy of the school

Ostensibly for student safety, schools and parents have begun using AI facial recognition and positioning technology to monitor student behavior but in so doing have triggered widespread privacy concerns.

A picture that went viral online shows Megvii software hard at work monitoring and analyzing the behavior of teenage students in class. 

The maker promotes the software as able to detect and analyze all kinds of body and facial movements at school and in the classroom - from the more obvious raising of a hand to the more subtle assessment of how much a student is paying attention to a teacher.

Megvii issued a statement on Monday, saying that the picture was simply used to advertise their products and that their products protect children's safety. 

The statement did not impress all Chinese internet users. "The point is to make students concentrate on studying, not monitor them," a netizen commented.

By introducing the technology, a school was seeking to strengthen security and prevent campus bullying, which was a good intention, an insider from the AI technology field, who asked for anonymity, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

But being driven by market forces, many such products have "gone bad," the insider said.

Technology companies are rushing to tap functions that monitor and manage students by analyzing in detail their class behavior, the insider noted, which could be a violation of student privacy.

"Although companies claim the technology helps the school improve the teaching quality and data security, some actually failed to ensure student privacy because of technical barriers," the insider said. 

There was "nothing wrong with technology, but how we use the technology matters," she said.

The technology that monitors students not only invades their privacy but also distorts the teacher-student relationship, experts said.

Shanghai-based news portal reported two weeks ago that a local primary school was using AI to monitor student behavior including whether they paid attention at class or greeted teachers.

The school said the story was "false" and the report was subsequently removed as of press time.

The school is very cautious about using AI, a teacher from the school told the Global Times on Wednesday. She asked the school not be named.

The school never had nor would they monitor students' behavior or violate their privacy, she said, noting that the school was using AI technologies to enhance security, provide teachers with better teaching materials and teach aerobics to students.

Reports circulated early in 2017 that many primary and middle schools were installing surveillance cameras and by downloading an app, a parent could know what their child was doing in class. 

Last year more than 10 schools in Southwest China's Guizhou Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region applied "intelligent uniforms" to monitor student attendance and location.


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